By Dr. Beth Leermakers
Are dog parks a blessing or a curse? Depends whom you ask. Dog park devotees appreciate the opportunity to exercise and socialize their dogs, while some dog trainers recommend avoiding dog parks at all costs, citing the risk of fights, injury and infectious diseases. Dog parks can be terrific or terrifying — depending on you and your dog as well as the other canine participants. Here are a few tips to make your dog park outing safer and more enjoyable.
Before You Go
Evaluate your dog. Not all dogs are “dog park dogs.” To do well, your dog must already be well socialized with other dogs and respond obediently to voice commands. The dog park is not the right place to socialize your dog. Hopefully it goes without saying that you should never take an aggressive dog to the dog park.
Fearful dogs should probably also skip the dog park. Dogs that are afraid of other dogs may get picked on by the other dogs or respond aggressively when they’re uncomfortable. Groups of dogs can quickly get into a frenzied state where their primitive brain (responsible for survival) takes over and the dogs become difficult to control and command. These “feeding frenzies” often lead to dogs, and the people separating them, getting hurt. Well-socialized dogs tend to work out these scuffles by themselves, using appropriate body language to end the conflict and resume group play.
Update your dog’s vaccinations. Protect your dog from infectious diseases by keeping her current on shots.
Administer flea and tick preventative. At the dog park dogs come into close contact with each other as well as grasses and shrubs, giving fleas and ticks plenty of opportunities to jump onto your dog. Use a topical or oral preventative recommended by your vet.
ID up. Be sure your dog is wearing his ID tag, rabies tag and microchip tag. All Dallas dogs are now required to be microchipped. Dallas Animal Services, spay/neuter clinics and vet clinics sell and implant microchips.
Have an emergency plan. Accidents happen. If you frequently visit the dog park in the evenings or on weekends, locate a vet clinic that’s open at those times. Keep a copy of your dog’s shot records in your car in case you wind up at a vet clinic that isn’t your everyday vet.
Pack poop bags and water. Some dog parks provide bags for waste pickup, but it’s wise to take a few with you, just in case. Don’t be that irresponsible dog parent who doesn’t clean up after his/her dog. If fresh, clean water isn’t available, take water and a portable water container.
Pick your timing and your park. If your dog is new to the dog park — or even if she’s not — plan your outing at a less crowded time. I don’t take my dogs to dog parks (and not just because, with so many foster dogs, my own home resembles its own dog park), but when I used to go to the White Rock Lake dog park, I avoided the weekends, when there are often too many dogs (including intact males — an accident waiting to happen) and irresponsible parents — resulting in negative energy that can make the situation scary or downright dangerous. Trust your gut. You may want to find a smaller, less-crowded dog park on the weekends. Parks with separate areas for big and small dogs are probably safer for your small dogs.
At the Park
Pay close attention to your dog — every minute. You’re responsible for your dog’s behavior and safety. Put away your phone. The dog park is not the place to read a book or newspaper.
Don’t try to watch more than two dogs by yourself. Keeping track of multiple dogs is tricky, and you won’t be able to intervene if your dogs get into separate scuffles at the same time (it happens). If you want to take more than two dogs, enlist a friend to help you.
Look before you leap. Before entering the park, watch the action for a few minutes. Check to see how many dogs are there and how they’re behaving. If you see aggressive or over-stimulated dogs, you’d be wise to wait until they leave, or turn around and go home. Give your dog a chance to calm down after you enter the park before you remove his leash. If your dog behaves fearfully or another dog acts aggressively toward yours (or vice versa), you may need to leave right away.
Monitor the play. Play is normal when the dogs are relaxed and interacting in a non-threatening manner. Barking, some growling, play bowing, pawing at each other, wrestling and chasing are normal behaviors. You may see some sniffing, mouthing and even some humping. Older dogs sometimes correct younger ones for being too pushy. As long as the dogs don’t take it too far, it’s all good fun. If you see several dogs acting as a group and crowding or chasing your dog (excessively), it’s time to redirect the play or head to a different area. If a serious fight breaks out, it’s definitely time to move to a different area or leave altogether. If
your dog is behaving aggressively, leave the park immediately. If you have a pitbull, German shepherd, Doberman or Rottweiler, your dog may be blamed for a dog fight or disturbance — even when it wasn’t your dog’s fault. Too many people are often quick to blame the “aggressive” dog breeds for scuffles, even when they weren’t the instigators. I’m not sure what to do in the face of this unacceptable breed discrimination — other than pay even closer attention to your dog’s behavior so you can take immediate corrective action if needed — but it’s important to acknowledge that it exists.
Know when to say “when.” Pay attention to your dog’s behavior and leave when it begins to deteriorate. An over-tired, over-stimulated dog is a recipe for disaster. Don’t stay too long.
With proper preparation and dog park etiquette, you can help your dog have a fabulous time at the dog park.